Food

Amazon Toon Is Empty Calories

Say what you will about Sausage Party, but if you’ve ever wanted to watch a piece of anthropomorphic food call another piece of anthropomorphic food the c-word, or see the denizens of a supermarket aisle engaged in a protracted, graphic orgy, the animated hit is an irreplaceable part of the cinematic canon, putting the “whore” in “hors d’oeuvres,” as it were.

I’m not sure if even the most devoted of Sausage Party fans would say that the comedy had enough material to fill its 88-minute running time (the aforementioned orgy takes up roughly the last third of the film, or maybe it just feels like it does). But are there between 5 and 10 good and clever minutes? Yes, I would argue with some trepidation lest somebody come at me with a stopwatch, there are.

Sausage Party: Foodtopia

The Bottom Line

Empty calories.

Airdate: Thursday, July 11 (Amazon)
Cast: Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Michael Cera, Edward Norton, Will Forte, Sam Richardson
Showrunners: Ariel Shaffir, Kyle Hunter

With similar trepidation, I’m prepared to say that there are between 5 and 10 good and clever minutes in Amazon’s new Sausage Party: Foodtopia as well, but it’s much harder to find redemptive value in 5 or 10 good and clever minutes stretched over eight half-hour episodes. In making the lurch to television, the Sausage Party: Foodtopia creative team has failed to find any real narrative or character-based explanation for what feels like a plate of reheated leftovers rather than a carefully devised gastronomic experience. I’d say it’s like haggis — a limited quantity of organ meats stretched out with grain-y filler and crammed into an ill-fitting casing — but I really like haggis.

Sausage Party: Foodtopia picks up in the general aftermath of the Shopwell’s orgy and massacre that completed the film, as various foodstuffs led an uprising to conquer the human overlords who once ate them. Or something like that. The actual specifics are completely irrelevant. All you need to know is that food is alive and sentient and humans are, for the most part, much less alive. And if you don’t get that, it’s helpfully summarized by Gum (Scott Diggs Underwood), one of the breakout characters/exposition devices from the film.

The season begins with a mixture of celebration and misery. Frank (Seth Rogen), a hot dog, and Brenda (Kristen Wiig), a bun, are pleased with their triumph over human oppression. Sammy (Edward Norton, who never could have believed he’d have to do a one-note Woody Allen impression for this long), a bagel, is miserable because the movie decided he had fallen in love with Kareem (David Krumholtz), a lavash, and now Kareem is dead. Other foods tend to fall more into the “joy” camp, which leads to an extended celebratory orgy within the first 10 minutes of the premiere.

Very quickly, though, the foodstuffs realize that they’re not as prepared for the outside world as they hoped. Growing up in the shelter of the grocery store, they’ve imagined a utopia, but instead they face incomprehensible carnage from the sky in the form of rain and crows. While Barry (Michael Cera), a deformed hot dog, seeks brutal vengeance on the few remaining humans, Frank and Brenda see value in getting answers from those survivors, including Jack (Will Forte).

At the same time, the foods struggle to build a functioning society, in part because a scheming orange, Julius (Sam Richardson), has built up an economic system driven by human teeth — something about repurposing the tools of oppression — that thrives on growing inequality between the haves and have-nots.

Sausage Party: Foodtopia does for late-stage capitalism what the Sausage Party feature did for organized religion, which is essentially “pays lip service to a topic that exists in society.” You can see the satirical critique that the creative team, lead by Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Conrad Vernon, have laid out, but other than acknowledging that capitalism is superficially bad, the series doesn’t have anything to say. You might suggest that this was a product of moving the franchise under the Amazon banner, but if you think Jeff Bezos’ impervious zillion-dollar juggernaut is afraid of the occasional Marxist screed, you haven’t watched I’m a Virgo (or the better moments of the Rogen/Goldberg produced The Boys).

With a satire of this sort, you need aspiration to be good, but the truth is that you need aspiration to be bad as well. Somehow, Sausage Party: Foodtopia actually has less aspiration than its source material. It isn’t just the central metaphor that’s thin. It’s the lack of desire to be even limitedly provocative in fleshing out the premise. The relationship between Sammy and Kareem from the movie? I didn’t buy it for a second and I don’t think it ultimately made a provocative point about Israeli-Palestinian relations, but using the sexual relationship between a lavash and a bagel for commentary on the Middle East is, if nothing else, an attempt at something. Trying to challenge, or tweak, stereotypes by having Salma Hayek voicing a taco paid no real dividends in the movie, but at least it’s presumptively edgy.

Sausage Party: Foodtopia can’t muster — or “mustard” — “presumptive edginess.”

The most “shocking” scene in the series, a scene so shocking — it’s not — that the episode is preceded by a warning, is just a minor escalation of the most shocking scene from the movie. The warning also serves to fully telegraph the alleged shock.

Most of the characters who died in tragic circumstances between the movie and the start of the series happen to be the characters with some accompanying commentary, and they’ve been replaced by a bunch of new figures who are mostly toothless, so to speak. Even choices that seem obvious — like the optimism of a utopia falling prey to an oligarchy fronted by an egomaniacal orange — fail to materialize into anything briefly, well, fruitful. Would I feel better if the show made more specific jokes connecting Julius to a recent president and convicted felon with one or two similar characteristics? Probably not a lot better, but specificity is always better than blandness, and Sausage Party has blandness to spare.

Across a movie and an eight-episode television series, the Sausage Party brand has failed to produce even a single likable or interesting character. The humor never goes deeper than one of those retro social media prompts like #MakeASingerFood, where tweeting “Pita Ora” would get you the brief dopamine rush of a half-dozen shares, without the responsibility of having to build a story around it. As for “story,” Sausage Party: Foodtopia begins and ends with disconnected references, as if there’s a meaningful purpose in an homage to Apocalypse Now or Call Me By Your Name with no cohesive voice to justify the nods. It’s eight episodes of barely solvent puns, which hurts because anybody who has ever read me knows that I am predisposed to love puns.

Credit where it’s due: Sausage Party was such a cheap-looking movie that the passage of eight years of evolution in the computer-animated space guarantees that Sausage Party: Foodtopia is marginally better-looking, albeit to no particular end. With the exception of one oddly poignant sequence at the top of the fifth episode, none of the animation has any impact at all, be it for thrills or humor or titillation or body/food horror.

Maybe it will ultimately play well with the handful of viewers who felt that the potential of the movie had gone only partially fulfilled. But the series works best as an elaborate prank to make critics look silly for complaining about the lack of nuance in a cartoon about fornicating food.


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